In response to Oakland’s child and teen prostitution, Workers of Faith, a Christian-based club at Mills College, launched a week-long event on campus called “Breaking the Chains” during the second week of March.
The club joined a broad-based movement in Oakland calling for a major re-examination of both the legal status and public perception of local sex workers, especially those that are underage.
“This project is a student-led initiative to come together to really care about what’s going on in our own backyard,” said Silvia Kim, a Mills alumnae and volunteer with Workers of Faith. “We live in the city of Oakland and right on International Boulevard, which is a few blocks down, we have a huge epidemic of child exploitation.”
The shift in viewing these minors as victims of child exploitation instead of criminalizing them as prostitutes is a relatively new stance many city officials and non-profits in Oakland are working to promote. Notably, Alameda District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and assembly member Sandre Swanson authored legislation that went into effect early 2009 to change the legal definition of minors in prostitution from criminal to victim. The legal term used to describe individuals under 18 in the sex trade in Alameda County has since been ‘commercially sexually exploited minor,’ as the term ‘prostitute’ connotes consent that minors are legally unable to give.
O’Malley and Swanson were also instrumental in stiffening the penalties for the pimps of minors, who are now legally defined as child abusers in addition to pimps and traffickers.
The Workers of Faith event was inspired by the opening of A New Day for Children, a faith-based non-profit offering housing for girls aged 10 to 18 involved in commercial sexual exploitation. Featuring a daily display booth outside the Tea Shop and a night of speakers and performers March 11, the campaign highlighted the abuse that often keeps women and children in prostitution and urged compassion as opposed to judgment.
To symbolize the unjust treatment of many in the sex trade, the event featured blindfolded students in handcuffs who sat solemnly on the Tea Shop steps every day of the week. As the bold image caught the eyes of students passing by, they were led to a six-panel display with 18 different prompts meant to inspire reflection about the ways society is indifferent or even indirectly supportive of prostitution.
One magazine image showed a mock Coca-Cola can bearing the slogan “Enjoy Pimp Juice” over a collage of 100 dollar bills and diamond rings. According to the event organizer and Mills alumna Ginny Murphy, these common media images only reinforce the idea that “there is something ‘cool’ about pimping.”
Senior Katherine Kugay said she was shocked to learn that the sex trafficking of minors was occurring right outside of the College’s gates.
“I really appreciated the presentation and I was just really surprised that this is happening in Oakland. I knew that this was happening in Thailand and South East Asia but I had no idea that Oakland was a hub for this kind of thing.”
Murphy said this response was common.
“A lot of people knew that [child prostitution] was happening globally, but not a lot of people knew that it was local. That seemed to really make something click for a lot of people when we told them that. Like all the sudden they realized that some of the girls they see loitering around the bus stop aren’t really waiting for the bus,” she said.
Junior Terrilynn Cantlon, on the other hand, said that she was well aware of the issue.
“I’m aware of this problem in general just because of the circles I travel in,” said Cantlon, who expressed concern at the board’s lack of representation of transgendered women.
“If you look at transgendered women, they’re often found on the freeway or in some back alley because as a society we’re teaching people that they aren’t valuable. So when we have a display like this, I’m down with the cause, but I also recognize that we’re silencing a portion of women who are then further demonized. My only critique really is that there should be representation of LGBT women when you use women as the object to display this kind of horrible experience that people have here in California.”
According to local statistics compiled by the Sexually Abused and Commercially Exploited Youth Program funded by the City of Oakland, 98 percent of the minors involved in sex trafficking are biologically female. Of the two percent of biological males involved, the majority identify as gay or transgendered.
The week’s events culminated in a gathering in the Bender Room, where students and other interested community members watched presentations and discussed ways to further organize around the issue. Presenters featured junior Magee Page, who choreographed and performed a dance symbolic of the oppression of trafficking, and Mills alumna Ramona Jones who shared her personal story about the reality of prostitution.
Jones also announced and passed out fliers for a candle light vigil to be held Friday, April 2 at Oakland’s City Hall to call further attention to the issue.